If Red Hook Summer, the latest slice of Brooklyn life from director Spike Lee, feels structurally unsound, that's because the film is built atop a fairly weak foundation. As the movie begins, an Atlanta war widow ships her son, a fro-hawked pre-teen named Silas (Jules Brown), to New York to spend the summer with his preacher grandfather in the rapidly gentrifying Red Hook neighborhood. It's never clear what spurred this decision. Aside from bouts of typical youthful insolence, Silas—who insists on being called Flik—isn't particularly troubled. He's a middle-class kid who goes to private school, eats vegan food and filters the world through his iPad. He questions the existence of God, but then, his mother rejected her own religious upbringing. She also rejected the man who forced it upon her: Before dropping Flik at his doorstep, she hadn't seen her father in years. In light of the family secrets that eventually crash through the movie like a wrecking ball, the choice to leave her son in his care is not only curious but downright irresponsible.
As much as the screenplay tells us, the only reason Flik is there is the same reason we are: Because Spike Lee needs someone to listen to his rants.
In Red Hook Summer—Lee's first narrative feature in five years—his mouth gets in the way of his ideas. He spends the film essentially debating himself, arguing, among other things, about the church's place in contemporary African-American society, and whether it's done the community more harm than good. It's an intriguing discussion, one a lot of filmmakers wouldn't have the courage to broach. It just isn't much of a movie.
But the sermonizing isn't what sinks Red Hook Summer. In fact, the scenes set in the small, wood-paneled storefront church where Flik's grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters), presides over a meager congregation, are the best in the film. They allow Peters, whose performance is by far the movie's highlight, the chance to really stretch out.
The movie has much more fundamental problems than Lee's preachiness. Like acting. This has been a good year for untrained youth on film—see Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild—but Brown and Toni Lysaith, who plays his coming-of-age love interest, are very untrained. Then there are the issues that typically plague Lee's lesser films: An unrelentingly melodramatic score, and an ending that goes on five minutes longer than it should.
And then there's that family secret, revealed three-fourths of the way into the movie. It isn't so much a plot twist as a pipe bomb detonated inside the film. If it appeared earlier, it may have taken Red Hook Summer in an entirely different direction, but it's much too big for the movie to properly handle in its final 30 minutes. It totals the picture so thoroughly that it never recovers. R.
Critic's Grade: C
SEE IT: Red Hook Summer opens Friday at Hollywood Theatre.